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RIGALI, MICHELE, sculptor and ornamentalist; b. probably 26 May 1841 in Tuscany (Italy); m. 1859 Mary Ann Putnam in New York State, and they had at least five children; d. 5 June 1910 at Quebec.

Almost nothing is known about Michele Rigali before he arrived at Quebec. From Tuscany, he immigrated as a young man to the United States, and around the time he married he enlisted in the American army. Having taken up the profession of sculptor about 1865, he moved to Canada, finally settling at Quebec.

Rigali’s presence in the city was first mentioned in the 1868 directory, which listed him as a sculptor living in Saint-Roch ward at 148 Rue Saint-Vallier. During the following decade he lived on Rue Saint-Joseph in the same ward. From late May to early August 1874 Rigali ran an announcement in Le Courrier du Canada informing the “gentlemen of the clergy in the city as well as those in the country that he has on hand and that he carries out orders for all sorts of ornaments for churches, ceilings, as well as statues, plain, in colour, and gilded, of all sizes and for all tastes. . . . he possesses models of every sort, thus saving clients from the nuisance of paying to have them sculpted.”

In 1874 Rigali also received a payment of $350 from the fabrique of Sainte-Agathe de Lotbinière for some unidentified works that would be among the earliest he executed in Quebec. The following year he formed a six-year partnership with his compatriot Lorenzo Nardi under the name of Rigali et Compagnie, statuary makers and merchants. Probably it was in 1877 that Rigali’s career as a sculptor was firmly launched, with the display of his works in the industry building during the Quebec provincial exhibition. In fact, his works in plaster attracted considerable attention, as is shown by the publication of a long and flattering article in L’Événement of 27 September, and particularly by the award of two first prizes in the category of “best model design in clay or plaster, or sculpture for architectural purposes.” According to the newspaper the fine finish of certain statues gave the illusion they were of marble, and the ornaments were put on a wooden base through a completely new process brought to Canada by Rigali, were resistant to all temperatures, and looked like wood-carvings. On 7 June 1878 Rigali signed a contract with Joseph Richard, a Saint-Roch merchant, to make and finish, from two different models, 600 statues of St Anne “in Quebec plaster,” which were to be delivered at the end of July.

Early in the 1880s Rigali left Saint-Roch ward for Upper Town. Thereafter his residence, with his workshop and showroom, was on Rue Saint-Jean, at 110–12 from 1882 to 1890 and at 132–34 from 1891 to 1910. He entered into partnership in turn with Michel Guay, a contractor for churches and other buildings who came from Percé, again under the name of Rigali et Compagnie (1881–83), and then with one or other of his own sons resident at Quebec in Rigali et Fils. Levi was a partner from 1883 to 1886, Michael in 1886–87, Johnny from 1887 to 1893, and perhaps Michael again from 1895 to 1897. The deed signed with Michael on 17 June 1886 specified that Rigali would attend to business with other people and with contracts, while his son would be responsible for internal matters and the manufacturing of statues and ornaments.

In the 1880s Rigali’s firm filled orders for both ornamentation and statuary from various parish churches: Saint-David-de-Lauberivière (1884), Saint-Jean and Saint-Laurent on the Île d’Orléans (1885), and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde at Quebec (1886). But unquestionably his biggest contracts were for the group of statues on the façade of Saint-Jean-Baptiste church at Quebec, done between 1883 and 1885, and for part of the interior ornamentation of the city’s court-house, carried out in 1887. In the autumn of 1885 journalists were invited to visit at the workshop of the Rigalis – “sculptors whose reputation is firmly established” – the exhibition of the 17 statues in gray cement destined for Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, “true works of art.” Le Journal de Québec of 17 October reported that “the execution of these statues leaves nothing to be desired from the dual standpoints of art and of solidity, which is comparable to what granite or marble would provide.” Undoubtedly this statuary group was not only one of the largest ensembles for a building exterior to be designed in the province of Quebec during that period, but also one of Rigali’s major artistic accomplishments, along with the decoration of the court-house. L’Électeur of 26 April 1887 was full of praise for the plaster ornamentations “done by a master’s hand . . . much superior to those on the legislative buildings,” adding that they “reflect the greatest credit on his talent as an artist.”

Rigali began to advertise intensively in Quebec newspapers and periodicals, first in Cherrier’s directory in 1889, then especially in L’Électeur and Le Courrier du Canada from 1891, and finally in La Semaine commerciale in 1895. Like the letterhead on his business stationery, which declared that his firm had been founded in 1865, these advertisements asserted that he had the “finest and most complete assortment of religious statues in the dominion,” and always had new models being produced. There was the widest choice in all sizes: the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin, St Joseph, the Apostles, male and female saints, angels, crosses, and Nativity scenes, as well as a range of stands and ornaments. Rigali also vaunted the great variety of his materials (plaster, “plastic,” and cement for exterior use) and the quality of his coatings (plain, gilded, or decorated “in the European fashion”). His clientele was informed that he had added to his specialities the decoration of statues and ornamentations and thus had hired a European painter and decorator. Rigali insisted that his decorated statues, which were done entirely in his shop, were of the same quality as the statues from Europe and that they were 40 per cent cheaper than the imported ones and 20 per cent less than those made elsewhere in Canada. Late in March 1894 he laid stress also on his specialty “of coatings and plaster ornaments for indoors” and on the experience he had gained from decorating more than 40 churches and public offices. However, as a reading of his advertisements shows, there was keen competition in the field of religious sculpture, and particularly in that of statuary. Not only did local woodcarvers compete with sculptors using castings, but all of them had to face the massive arrival of imports from foreign factories.

During the 1890s Rigali filled numerous orders for parishes in southern and eastern Quebec. He executed ornamentation contracts for various churches, including Saint-François-Xavier at Chicoutimi (1890), Notre-Dame-de-Foy at Sainte-Foy (1890), Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Quebec (1890), Saint-Médard at Warwick (1891), and Saint-Alexandre at Kamouraska (1894), as well as for a church in Cornwall, Ont. (1895), and for the chapels of the Villa Manrèse (1896) and of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary at Quebec (1899). According to Le Courrier du Canada of 17 July 1894 he stood out through “fine taste, great sureness of execution, meticulous care in the choice of his materials, in short, everything that is likely to make a work both agreeable to the eye and resistant to the elements.” Rigali furnished pieces of statuary to churches including those of Saint-Apollinaire (1893), Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré (1893), Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Quebec (1895), Sainte-Pétronille on the Île d’Orléans (1896), and Sainte-Julie (Laurierville) (1897). In 1894 he also decorated three wood statues carved by Louis Jobin* for the church of Saint-Michel.

Rigali’s sons Johnny and Frank went into partnership as decorators and painters in 1901, while in 1902 he formed a company for a year with George Simpkin, a clerk, as manufacturers of decorative plaster and artificial marble established at 114–16 Rue Saint-Jean. During that decade Rigali continued to supply statues and ornaments to various parishes in the province: to Sainte-Luce and Saint-Thuribe around 1900, Saint-François on the Île d’Orléans in 1901, Saint-Calixte in Plessisville and Saint-Casimir in 1902, Saint-Augustin at Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures in 1903, Saint-Édouard in 1908, and Saint-Théophile and Saint-Joseph (d’Alma) in​ 1910.

Rigali died on 5 June 1910 as a result of pneumonia contracted on a business trip in Charlevoix. The funeral was held three days later in St Patrick’s Church, attended by nearly the whole Italian colony at Quebec, many dignitaries, aldermen, architects, and sculptors. As the presence of certain people at his funeral or at business negotiations before a notary indicates, Rigali was involved in the artistic milieu of the capital. He maintained professional relations not only with foreign artists such as Lorenzo Nardi and the American Victor Putnam, but also with well-known local architects and sculptors such as François-Xavier Berlinguet*, Joseph-Pierre Ouellet*, Georges-Émile Tanguay*, Laurent Moisan, Alfred Carbonneau, and Louis Jobin. In his will Rigali named his son Frank as his executor and bequeathed all his personal and real estate to him. Frank was to carry on the activities of the family business, but at his death in 1912 it disappeared. In the ensuing years other Italian firms, such as those of Angelo Barsetti and Luigi Bastiani, would take over in the field of plaster statuary and ornamentation at Quebec.

Like the other Italian-born sculptors and painters in the province of Quebec during the second half of the 19th century, Michele Rigali was forgotten after his death. His career and his production are still relatively unrecognized, particularly because of the prejudices fostered by the art historians Marius Barbeau* and Gérard Morisset*. They regarded the increasing use of plaster in church statuary and decoration from the middle of the century as a break in the development of Quebec sculpture. In their view it was the beginning of artistic decadence and the end of an enduring French handicraft tradition of wood-carving. They were not, however, taking into consideration the changing taste and needs of Quebec society in the latter half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries. In the field of religious art, firms such as Rigali’s at Quebec or those of Carlo Catelli, Thomas (Tommaso) Carli, G. Baccerini, or A. Giannotti in Montreal, were making and offering for sale models that were original, varied, new, popular, solid, and inexpensive. Their productions in plaster for interiors and in cement for the exterior, which were much in demand, were obtainable at lower prices than were works carved in wood. The extraordinary prestige they enjoyed and the unusual fad ensured that their works spread across the province. There were few churches or communities that did not eventually possess one or another of the models signed by Carli or Rigali. As far as appearance is concerned, the success of their production had a decisive influence on Quebec wood-carvers, in particular Louis Jobin, Jean-Baptiste Côté, and Olindo Gratton*, who had to adapt to the new needs of their clientele. The commercial output of the Italian Canadian firms, which indeed was conventional, fitted the taste of the period and was in keeping with certain international currents, in particular the plaster-saint imagery of Munich or Saint-Sulpice that was widespread in the western world. It was proof of a great change in taste and thinking in Quebec society.

Mario Béland

The details of Michele Rigali’s career have been assembled mainly from parish archives; from notarial minute-books, especially those of J.-A. Charlebois, G.-P. Châteauvert, Louis Leclerc, E. G. Meredith, G.-A. Paradis, L.-P. Sirois, and Cyrille Tessier at the AC, Québec, and those of É.-J. Angers (CN1-292) and L.-P. Falardeau (CN1-301) at the ANQ-Q; from the Reg. de déclarations et dissolutions de sociétés (T11-1) at the ANQ-Q; and from Quebec City newspapers, in particular L’Action catholique, 6, 8 juin 1910; Le Courrier du Canada, 1874–97; L’Électeur, 1882–94; L’Événement, 1877; Le Journal de Québec, 1877–86; Le Nouvelliste, octobre 1885; the Quebec Chronicle, 7, 9 June 1910; La Semaine commerciale, janvier 1895; and Le Soleil, 7–8 juin 1910.

A detailed list of all the instruments and articles consulted by the author is available in Rigali’s file at the DCB.

AC, Québec, État civil, Catholiques, St Patrick’s Church (Quebec), 13 Dec. 1906, 8 June 1910. BE, Québec, Index aux immeubles; Index aux noms. Qué., Ministère des Affaires Culturelles, Centre de Documentation (Québec), Dossiers de paroisses. La Semaine commerciale, 16 août 1895. Marius Barbeau, Louis Jobin, statuaire (Montréal, 1968). Mario Béland, “Louis Jobin (1845–1928) et le marché de la sculpture au Québec” (thèse de phd, univ. Laval, Québec, 1991); Louis Jobin, maître sculpteur ([Québec et Montréal], 1986). Danielle Blanchet et Sylvie Thivierge, Inventaire des marchés de construction des actes notariés de la ville de Québec, 1871–1899 (Ottawa, 1982). Directory, Quebec, 1868–1910; Que., Prov. of, 1910–11. J. R. Porter et Jean Bélisle, La sculpture ancienne au Québec; trois siècles d’art religieux et profane (Montréal, 1986). G.-A. Roy et Andrée Ruel, Le patrimoine religieux de l’île d’Orléans (Québec, 1982).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Mario Béland, “RIGALI, MICHELE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rigali_michele_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rigali_michele_13E.html
Author of Article:   Mario Béland
Title of Article:   RIGALI, MICHELE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   December 4, 2023